IEEE suspends mobile broadband group over Qualcomm influence

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) has suspended the working group developing 802.20, a wireless broadband standard expected to challenge WiMax, following accusations that Qualcomm was improperly influencing the group’s decision-making process.

The move by the IEEE was announced on Thursday and was reported by the industry journal EE Times.

The 802.20 proposal was designed for mobile wireless broadband, but disappeared from view for a time after many of the companies involved in its development abandoned ship in favour of the mobile version of WiMax, 802.16e.

At the same time, Qualcomm was making concerted efforts to gain control of the 802.20 group, according to industry observers, attempting repeatedly to derail a proposal to base the standard on Flash-OFDM technology from Flarion Technologies.

Finally, Qualcomm bought Flarion for $600 million last August. Qualcomm controls the CDMA family of technologies, and had been attempting to steer 802.20 towards CDMA.

The completion of the Flarion acquisition, early this year, seemed to give 802.20 renewed promise, according to industry analysts. “With the closing of Qualcomm’s acquisition of Flarion, 802.20 may get a new lease on life,” said Philip Solis, ABI Research’s senior analyst for wireless connectivity research, in a research note. “Qualcomm will almost certainly attempt to rally support from other industry participants.”

Intel and Motorola, however, alleged that the 802.20 working group’s chairman, Jerry Upton, had shown too much favour for proposals by Qualcomm and Kyocera, over those of rivals. Upton, while supposedly an “independent consultant,” was in the pay of Qualcomm, according to critics. Upton has since disclosed that he is a consultant for Qualcomm, according to the IEEE.

The IEEE said it had received a number of other complaints about the process. One was filed in January by an Intel engineer, and claimed that a group of at least 20 consultants was improperly voting as a block in favour of Qualcomm.

Upton has been referring all queries to Steve Mills, chairman of the IEEE Standards Association Standards Board (IEEE-SASB). Mills said the IEEE isn’t giving details of its investigation yet, but had turned up enough evidence to support the suspension. “A preliminary investigation into the group’s operation revealed a lack of transparency, possible ‘dominance,’ and other irregularities in the working group,” he said in a statement.

In his announcement of the group’s suspension, Mills said the controversy around the process had grown so intense that continuing its efforts could turn out to be a waste of time, since ongoing investigations could end up reversing any of the group’s decisions. “Recent activity in the group appears to have become highly contentious – significantly beyond what is normally experienced in IEEE-SA,” Mills stated.

The suspension is in effect until 1 October, meaning July plenary and September interim meetings are both cancelled, Mills said. A November plenary will go ahead as scheduled. There are no current plans to change the group’s membership, Mills said.

Qualcomm denied there were any serious problems with the 802.20 process. “We consider the 802.20 process to date to have been handled appropriately and within IEEE guidelines,” Qualcomm spokesman Jeremy James told Techworld. “We support the 802.20 process and look forward to its continuation.”

James said Qualcomm continues to have a strong interest in OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex Access), the technology pioneered by Flarion, and which Qualcomm has also been working on internally. Qualcomm hopes to see 3G standards and 802.20 both come to use OFDMA, James said.

Intel said it couldn’t comment on the process, aside from the statements it has already made public via the 802.20 process.

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